California lawmakers and civil rights advocates have significantly scaled back legislation aimed at holding police more accountable for killing civilians.
Under changes announced Friday, Assembly Bill 931 would no longer make it easier under state law for prosecutors to criminally charge officers if they use deadly force. Instead, the measure now seeks to toughen internal police policies across California, which would allow for departments to discipline officers and face civil lawsuits if new use-of-force standards are violated.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the bill’s author, said the revised measure would still mark a key departure from the state’s existing rules for when police are allowed to kill civilians while on duty.
“This will be a profound change in the culture of policing in California, a change based on the sanctity of life and the obligation to preserve it except under the most dangerous conditions,” Weber said in a statement.
The changes to the bill, which had not been formally made by 5 p.m. Friday, come as the legislation faces its final and most difficult hurdles with days left before the Legislature adjourns for the year. The proposal is currently in a state Senate committee and not scheduled for a vote by either house of the Legislature.
Debate over the measure has been fierce. Civil rights advocates have enlisted famous actors for online advertisements and held protests to push for passage. Law enforcement groups have blanketed airwaves with radio spots in Southern California and set up a memorial to fallen officers steps from the Capitol.
The bill would now require police departments across the state to update their policies to indicate when officers are allowed to use force. Under the bill, such policies would have to include rules stating that officers must exhaust reasonable alternatives, such as using verbal warnings and other deescalation tactics, before turning to deadly force.
If those provisions are violated, a department would be able to discipline an officer and departments could face civil lawsuits, said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of California, which is a principal backer of the bill. Bibring said the intent of advocates was never to send more police to prison, and the changes to the bill reflect that.
“The intention of the bill is to help save lives and reduce police shootings,” Bibring said.
The bill now also wouldn’t take effect until 2020, giving departments time to update their policies and allowing officers to be trained for the new standard.
Weber said in her statement that she did not receive substantive proposals from law enforcement groups indicating changes to the bill they would find acceptable. But unions representing rank-and-file officers in Los Angeles and across the state and the California Police Chiefs Assn. released a proposal they said would increase departmental standards for deescalating potentially violent encounters between officers and the public, among other changes.
“Once again, Dr. Weber, the ACLU and other anti-police fringe groups are choosing to push falsehoods to the media as opposed to having a fact-based discussion about the dire implications of their proposals, proposals that will undermine the safety of law enforcement professionals and the public across California,” said a statement from the board of directors of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Prior versions of the legislation would have made it easier to criminally prosecute officers for killing civilians in two key ways. It would have allowed prosecutors to take into account whether an officer's actions prior to a killing were reckless in placing them in harm's way. The bill also would have allowed officers to use deadly force only if necessary to prevent imminent or serious bodily injury or death, which could have encouraged prosecutors to consider whether officers could have handled the situation with verbal warnings or non-lethal force. This provision now would only apply to departmental policies and civil cases.
Police groups warned that the prior version of Assembly Bill 931 would have forced officers to hesitate in high-risk situations, which could lead to deaths.
“It is simply unconscionable to ask a peace officer, when facing what he or she reasonably believes to be an immediate threat to their own life or the life of another, to stop and consider all other possible options, and to ‘make sure’ the threat is real before using deadly force,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell wrote in a July letter to lawmakers.
Even with Friday’s changes, Weber’s legislation still faces a difficult road to passage. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) guided the bill out of a fiscal committee last week, allowing the bill to avoid a key deadline, and providing a greater opportunity to debate what she called in a statement “a crucially important issue.”
Weber said that Atkins has guaranteed the bill would get a vote on the Senate floor.
But should the bill pass the Senate, it would face a higher hurdle in the Assembly, where many Democrats have significant personal ties to law enforcement. Any negotiations over further changes to the bill must wrap up by Tuesday — under the state Constitution, the text of all legislation must be available for 72 hours before a final vote.
Weber introduced the legislation less than three weeks after Sacramento police shot and killed 22-year-old Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, while searching for a car vandal. The measure she and advocates announced was designed to help prevent further killings.
Sacramento prosecutors have yet to decide on whether to charge the officers involved in Clark’s death. But as it stands, few officers face prosecution for killing civilians. From 2005 through the end of last year, California law enforcement officers killed 1,276 people while in the process of arresting them, according to state Department of Justice statistics.
Just two homicides were not considered justified, according to the department — the 2009 Oakland killing of Oscar Grant and the 2011 Orange County slaying of Kelly Thomas. The Bay Area Rapid Transit officer who shot Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and the officers involved in the Thomas killing were found not guilty or had charges against them dropped.